I was pretty intrigued when I pulled this case marked “Shakespearian novelties” from the shelf in the Vault…
… then I realized that it actually said “Shakespearian novelettes,” and my excitement dimmed a little. Novelizations and other prose adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays (and sometimes even poetry) are not exactly uncommon these days. Narrative stories based on Shakespeare’s plays have abounded since the publication of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespear in 1807. A desire to morally uplift both young and working class readers, combined with the decreasing costs of paper and printing, created a significant uptick in publications of affordable editions of literature and the classics in the early decades of the 1800s. Between 1814-1846, fiction and juvenile literature accounted for approximately 16% of the books published in England; by the period 1870-1919, they made up the largest share of the publishing market at 23%.1 Throughout this time, their subjects expanded to include not only capital-L Literature, but a variety of stories which emphasized entertainment over moral values. A subset of these stories were famously known as “penny dreadfuls” due to their low prices and scandalous contents.
When I opened the case, the Shakespearian novelettes above seemed to belong in the “dreadful” category rather than the “uplifting” category, with brightly illustrated covers, bordering on lurid. The text inside, though, is more mundane than the covers—prose versions of eight Shakespearian plays, adapted down to about fifteen pages each. The back cover of each advertises the full “Shakespearian Novelette Series,” in addition to a selection of two-pence novels that sound similarly exciting. They were published by Goode Bros. of Clerkenwell Green (London), a long-running family printing business. The paper of both the covers and pages has aged, but the pages are otherwise in good condition, and some gatherings are even uncut.
…And that’s all we know about them. None of the volumes are dated. None of the narratives are credited, nor are the chromo-lithograph cover illustrations. The Folger is the only library with holdings for these books in the shared catalog Worldcat, and the titles are resolutely un-Googleable.2 That last surprised me—some of the titles are distinct enough for at least a few hits, not to mention the less-common usages “Shakespearian” and “novelettes,” and the prominently misspelled “Termagent” in one title.3
We can take a pretty good guess that the volumes are probably from the 1860s or 1870s, right in the middle of the penny dreadful boom, given that the Goode Bros. operated out of a shop at 48 Clerkenwell Green roughly between 1859 and 1879.4 (And even if that guess is wrong, we can still use the invention of chromolithography in the late 1830s and the destruction of the Goode Bros.’ Clerkenwell Green shop by fire in 1895 as outermost estimates!)
As frustrating as it is, this may be all the information we ever know about these novelettes. They’re each cataloged in Hamnet with the appropriate access points and genre terms—and are now described on The Collation as well—so perhaps someday a researcher (could it be you??) will be able to fill in some additional details!
- Eliot, Simon. Some trends in British publishing, 1800-1919 (London: The Bibliographical Society, 1994). pages 44-47.
- Although the act of publishing this post will give them at least one Google result, and will mean that they are no longer Googlenopes.
- It’s difficult to determine whether this spelling is intentional or not. “Termagent” is used on the cover, title page, and the rear cover advertisements of all volumes; however, “termagant” seems to be used consistently within the text of the story itself. The OED does list “termagent” as an alternate spelling for “termagant,” but dates it to the 16th and 17th centuries rather than the 19th.
- Brown, Philip H.A. London publishers and printers, c.1800-1870 (London: British Library, 1982) page 74.